Absurdly Effective: Harnessing the Power of Humour in Advertising

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When was the last time an advert made you laugh?

In the early years following the 2008 financial crisis, our screens were full of Mr Bean fronting Snickers’ ‘You’re Not You When You’re Hungry’, Isaiah Mustafa riding a horse, topless, as Old Spice’s ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ and Cadbury’s raising eyebrows with their joyful eyebrow dance ad.

In times of financial uncertainty, brands that turn to humour in advertising can see big rewards. While it might be tempting to play it safe, research shows that consumers associate absurdity with authenticity, and using humour in advertising can grow trust, relatability and brand recall.

88% of people tend to resonate more with brands that aren’t afraid to embrace the absurd (Stackla), and this sense of realness increases consumer feelings of assurance and trust towards brands (Forrester). 

Research by eye-tracking company Lumen Research found that ad recall increases from 25% for ads viewed for under one second, to 45% for ads viewed for between one and two seconds (in print advertising). 

If you can hold your audience’s attention, you stand more chance of being remembered –  the first step to inspiring action. 

According to Oracle, 90% of consumers are likely to remember light-hearted and humorous ads, and a research paper from Tilburg University (‘Attracting Attention Through Absurd Advertising’), found that triggering consumers’ surprise is a powerful way to capture their attention. 

Laughter, a physiological response to humour, triggers the release of endorphins, creating a state of pleasure and relaxation. This positive emotional state enhances brand recall and persuasiveness, making consumers more receptive to advertising messages.

But despite these promising stats, we’ve seen humour fall out of favour in recent years, as brands compete to win over eco-minded consumers with their sustainability credentials, and stay relevant in turbulent times by focusing on social purpose. 

In the 2023 WARC rankings – a benchmark for campaign effectiveness – there are strong themes of inclusivity, sustainability and social justice, but very little humour and absurdity. Perhaps, given that ‘permacrisis’ was the word of the year in 2022, this is a sign of the times.

But are we ready to lighten up?

For brands operating on tighter budgets, in a time of reduced consumer spending, humour may well be the answer. 

In 2018, soft drinks manufacturer RC Cola found themselves unable to compete on price in the Filipino market due to the newly introduced sugar tax, which caused the cost of sodas to rise by 41%. This eroded the price parity RC Cola had against Coca-Cola (their biggest competitive advantage) and sales plummeted 7%, while the whole soda category shrunk by 9.5%.

With a limited budget and basic media strategy, the brand released a bizarre film about a boy who discovers that his mother is secretly a giant bottle of RC Cola. The ad was designed to play on the tropes of soap operas in the Philippines, leveraging humour and absurdity to appeal to a Gen Z audience. 

The campaign was distinct from the brand’s competitors, highly targeted to one demographic, and the power of the creative proved to be a catalyst for organic sharing, with the film being watched 1.6 million times within the first six hours.

The two films released as part of the campaign were the only thing that changed within the marketing mix during this time, so the brand could confidently track that the 67% increase in sales they experienced was entirely down to this advertising.

Jake Yrastorza, managing partner of Gigil, the agency behind the campaign, said: “I always say that it is more expensive to be safe than it is to be brave. Because when you play things safe, your ideas are not going to travel as far.”

Perhaps the best barometer for gauging the mood of the advertising industry, and the tone of things to come, is the annual battle of the Christmas ads. 

In recent years, brands have competed heavily for the tears of the Twiterati, in a trend that came to a head with last year’s charity-focused John Lewis ad that was seemingly perfectly pitched for ongoing cost of living crisis, but that failed to beat its rivals for long-term effectiveness and brand building.

System1’s platform uses the emotional response of real people to award ads a star rating between 1 and 5, as a predictive indicator of the ad’s brand-building ability. 

Interestingly, purpose-driven ads normally rank poorly for effectiveness in System1’s rankings. Previous purpose-focused Christmas ads, such as Sainsbury’s World War 1 themed ad (2014), Iceland’s 2018 Greenpeace crossover and John Lewis’s partnership with Age UK for 2015’s ‘Man On The Moon’, scored only 1 or 2 stars on the platform.

In a change of pace for 2023, the retailer has abandoned the now-traditional tearjerker in favour of a more absurd and humorous approach, delivered by a different agency. Saatchi & Saatchi have created a mischievous carnivorous plant with a rock opera soundtrack and plenty of nods to the kitsch classic Little Shop of Horrors – which the brand says reflects a desire for something fun and uplifting.

With activations in-store, shoppable ads on YouTube and Google, the widest ever range of merchandise, and at least six short clips which showcase individual products, the focus is well and truly back on shopping.

But that’s not to say that John Lewis has completely abandoned their focus on social purpose. With the strapline ‘Let Your Traditions Grow’, and an advert representing the 3 million single-parent families in the UK, the advert is a quietly progressive nod to evolving Christmas traditions and finding joy together.

While it remains to be seen how this year’s Christmas ads will perform, the data doesn’t lie. Humour and absurdity increases ad performance. For brands seeking to drive sales in 2024 and beyond, it’s time to embrace the weird and wonderful.

A recent study by Oracle revealed that 91% of people globally would prefer brands to be funny, and 72% would choose a brand that uses humour over the competition – explaining why humour has traditionally been so popular in highly-competitive categories such as FMCG.

But as John Lewis has shown, this doesn’t have to mean abandoning showcasing your social or environmental purpose. In fact, absurdity stimulates creativity and divergent thinking, encouraging viewers to make unexpected connections and engage with the advert on a deeper level. 

If you really want to be known for your positive impact and purpose, try communicating it with humour. You’ll disrupt established patterns, challenge expectations, stand out from the crowd and increase your memorability.

In a world increasingly saturated with advertising messages, absurdity is a powerful tool to cut through the noise and capture attention. By embracing the unexpected and injecting a touch of humour into campaigns, brands can forge deeper connections with consumers, boost brand recall and drive sales during challenging times.

As we navigate the ever-changing landscape of the marketing world, let us remember that sometimes, the most absurd ideas can lead to the most effective results.